Saturday, December 15, 2012

Each One Teach One: Author Helen Hemphill -- Scene & Summary

Hailed as “a strong new voice in children’s literature” by Kirkus Reviews, Helen Hemphill’s debut novel Long Gone Daddy won the Teddy Award from the Writers’ League of Texas. Her second novel Runaround was named a Booklist 2007 Top Ten Youth Romance. The Adventurous Deeds of Deadwood Jones was the recipient of the 2008 Virginia M. Law Award from the Daughters of the Republic of Texas Library and was named to VOYA’s 2009 Top Shelf List. Helen holds an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College and directs the Whole Novel Workshop for the Highlights Foundation.   Helen will teach a workshop with Linda Sue Park for the Highlights Foundation in October 2013, Building a Novel:  Scene, Summary, and Sentence.  

I first met Helen this past September when she taught a great 1/2 day workshop on "Scene and Summary" at the SCBWI Carolinas Fall Conference. 

Since the December holidays are a time when many of us writers have a little extra time to really begin revising those 1st or 2nd and 5th drafts we've been working on all year, to get them ready for submission, this seemed like a good time to have Helen give us some tips on how to make our scenes really pop!

Thanks so much Helen, for being with us today and next week!  Here's our Question 1:

We’re talking today about balancing “Scene & Summary” in our novel writing.  Before we jump into learning how to balance these two, Helen, can you please explain the difference between a Scene and a Summary? Also, how is a scene different from a chapter?

The basic goal of the novelist is to build a story though dramatic scenes that the reader can imagine.  The scene, then, is the core of the narrative.  It’s where events happen, character’s actions and dialogue are revealed, setting is shown, and the forward movement of the story takes place.  A scene happens in the “real time” of the novel (or in some cases flashback) and involves the reader in that moment.  More about scene in a minute.  Summary links the scenes together and moves the reader through time.  Summary can be as simple as writing, The next morning… or can be as rich in detail and observation as serves the story.  Both scene and summary are necessary for the narrative, but the scene is the backbone of the narrative arc. It’s funny, but lots of writers, including myself, start a novel by writing summary.  We tell the story.  I see that all the time in manuscripts for the Whole Novel Workshop.  But it’s not always the habit of an inexperienced writer. Recently, I saw Pulitzer Prize winning author Michael Chabon speak about his new book Telegraph Road, and he mentioned how easily he would write twenty pages of summary, then realize he hadn’t written any scenes.  He then would start over because the dramatic core of the novel was missing. Readers need scenes to stay connected to the story.

So what is a scene?  I’ll borrow elements from John Truby’s Anatomy of Story.  First the scene must take the reader into the story, so there needs to be a goal for the character (not necessarily the protagonist of the novel).  He or she wants something to happen in the scene.  That desire will drive the narrative.  Secondly, there should be some opposition to the character’s goal.  Who or what stands in the way?  A scene can end with the desire of the character met, or it can end with a heightened element of conflict.  Either way, it’s written using action and dialogue and must in some way be linked in a cause and effect relationship that moves the overall narrative toward the climax.  Scenes can’t happen in random order.  Events need to build to something greater.  

Thanks, Helen. That's a great explanation! So it sounds like a scene is an individual situation which is just a small piece of time within the bigger story, that moves the story forward.  It requires a character who has a goal in that situation, and who is trying to acheive that goal, and who either succeeds or doesn't succeed in reaching that goal in the end of the scene, and then whatever happened in that scene leads us forward toward the next scene (or the next situation in the book). And all the scenes are to be linked together with summary info as needed, and these scenes and summaries move the book from page 1 to the end.

It's amazing how we all think we "know" these things, and then, like Michael Chabon said of his own experience, we get to writing less thoughtfully and we write everything in summary ("telling" the story) instead of "showing" it through scenes. Ack!  This is a great reminder!      

      So, Helen, can you give some suggestions as to what are some of the key things to always make sure to include in a scene to make it strong?

Stephen King recently wrote that a writer must visualize a scene in order to make it strong.  The writer must see what is happening through the imagery of the setting, of the characters’ emotions, and through the action of the scene and then he or she must make the reader see it. Writing scene shows the dramatic action of the characters, but that dramatic action must take the reader somewhere in the bigger arc of the story.  Scenes build to something greater. 

I'm now envisioning a bunch of little cartoon characters all named "Scene" rushing toward each other and wearing red capes that are flying in the wind, and as the link hands together trying to save some damsel in distress who is hanging precariously from a tall building the little scenes are calling to each other "link up, link up, together we can build to something greater!" :) Hee Hee Hee.  Perhaps I've had too much coffee today, Helen! But I love those last 2 sentences! It shows how each scene is a tiny piece of the story building together to get the whole story to where we're trying to go in the end!

1    Here's one last question for today.  Are there different types of scenes or different patterns that we can keep in mind when trying to write strong scenes in our novels?

There’s no set pattern or formula.  No silver bullet.  The scene must serve the story.  It must inform the reader about the characters while moving the story to its climax and conclusion.  Maybe that’s why writing scene is difficult for most of us.  There’s no universal example that works for all stories.  But there are lots of scenes that work for the stories being told.  I often analyze scenes in movies as a way to figure out something I’m trying to work on in a novel.  Classics like The Godfather or Casablanca are great for seeing how a scene works within the context of a story.  But I also love Cameron Crowe’s movie Almost Famous

Thanks Helen.  I'm sure that most of us will be watching a movie with family or friends at some point over this holiday season.  How about some of those great scenes in some of our favorite festive films, like the Jim Carey version of The Grinch who stole Christmas, The Sound of Music, and It's a Wonderful Life!

Happy scene scouting, everybody!  Let's all find a few scenes in our favorite films, note how they begin, what happens in the middle, and how they end.  Let's look for the scenery, the characters' actions and emotions, and their ramifications.  Then we can look at our own stories and figure out how to make our own scenes stronger.

See you next Saturday for more specifics on scene and summary!


Janelle said...

Hi All,

SORRY the post was put up later than usual today! THANKS to all of you who showed up at the normal time to read it even though it wasn't there yet. That warmed my heart!

And huge thanks to the wonderful Helen Hemphill!

Happy Revising to all!

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the good description of "scene!"

Carol Baldwin said...

IT was nice to hear this all over again. Thanks Janelle and Helen!

Linda A. said...

Better late than never, Janelle. I couldn't get here on time either. I didn't want to miss it though. As always, you bring us great info. Thanks!